Children in combat
The exact number of children currently caught up in conflict as combatants is unknown, but it is likely to run into the hundreds of thousands. Children are conscripted, kidnapped or pressured into joining combat forces. Not all of them take part in combat, though the proliferation of lightweight weapons has made it possible even for children under 10 to become effective killers. Children are also forced into sexual slavery and to become labourers, cooks or servants, messengers or spies. Girls are particularly liable to be sexually exploited, whether by one commander or a whole troop. Many will also join boys on the front line.
Armed groups and, in some cases, government forces use children because they often prove easier than adults to condition into unthinking obedience and fearless killing. For all such children, whether they are forcibly recruited, join in order to escape poverty or hunger, or enlist to actively support a cause, the first loss is their childhood.
Africa and Asia have the highest numbers of children actively involved in conflict as combatants. And the trend in using children in conflict is not diminishing: during 2003, there was a surge in the recruitment of children in Côte d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Liberia. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in particular, there have been widespread reports of atrocities, rape and beatings involving children. Thousands of children in northern Uganda have been abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army and forced into combat and servitude. Thousands more flee their homes and villages each night to seek refuge in towns in order to avoid attack or abduction. In Myanmar, there are still tens of thousands of children in the armed forces, while the number of children used by armed groups in Colombia has increased to around 14,000 in recent years.